On ViewDavid Lewis Gallery
April 28–June 3, 2023
What is Leah Ke Yi Zheng’s work about? It feels like the wrong question to ask, yet it feels more unjust to leave it in an ambiguous aesthetic limbo that is susceptible to taste.
Trained in traditional ink painting in China, Zheng filled most of her early time with ink and her hand with a brush. She made the transition to painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, halting her pursuit of a law degree. A transcultural background might seem to naturally place her work in a para-category, caught in the “polemic” aesthetic paradigms of the East and West. While the validity of such habitual grouping is up for debate, Zheng’s first solo show in New York does demonstrate an enigmatic oscillation between the mechanical and the organic.
Stretched in neat irregularity, silk is the base of operation for these paintings (all 2023). The recurrent “fuseé” in and out of focus points to an abstraction a tad too particular, whose delicate tonality suggests sedation a bit too exuberant. “Time” seems to be too easy of a grip—a dangerous one even. This semiotic association risks the precarious fugitivity that the artist cultivates in the absence of thematic constraint.
In the untitled painting in black ink over pine wood stretchers, a jagged wheel cuts short at the top border, as if bending the latter awry. Each line is executed with the crisp seal of a pencil drawing, only to be disrupted with anticipated unpredictability: the ink derails, casting wayward shadows, breaching the contract of positive and negative. The excess black ink in some parts congeals in an oily glow, obstructing the solitude of the shadow. Breaking off from the pictorial rendering of an object, a natural autonomy precipitates. The monumentally scaled (at 108 by 85 inches) Untitled stages this aftermath, where the docile drawing of a mechanical part explodes into a vibrant whole—bursting out of the bounds of an object, emulating a phantasmic presence. The rusty sienna and electric greens cast a mystical patina on the edges of the wheel and the surface of the painting, gesturing to a becoming that undermines the objecthood of the engine, while underlining that of the painting itself.
Zheng plays with the indeterminate lines in an ink painting and pushes them to the edges of the frame, in tilts and protrusions, extending the conundrum of the surface to the space. A new ground is levered to embrace the embodied memory in the artist's hand and her craft. The reorientation of scale and rematerialization of the very base for painting constitute a pivotal moment, punctuating a simultaneous departure and return.
Ink and acrylic animate the silk surface differently: ink stains, while acrylic stays. Soccer hero Diego Maradona hides his ambiguous expression in ink-washed hues in Untitled (Maradona) whereas his “menshen” (“door god” in Chinese folk culture) headdress rendered in pigments linger on the relief. In another image, mythical flora unfurls in pastel ripples, gazing over its own reflection out of the woods. One of the most perplexing paintings is a monochrome black painting, Untitled (black painting). Here, pigment loses its positive significance in inscrutability, and mark-makings are pushed to the brink of existential abyss. Yet, the weight of each stroke and the interchangeable consistency of ink and acrylic create dents and sediments that refract light from different vantage points, impelling one to look again and again. A luminous sculptural depth transpires into the dark. A strong glare—a delectable renunciation of the positive.
Gazing into the drama in Untitled, stretched over mahogany, feels infinitely defeating yet enticing. Inverted summits in charred crimson drip over washes of Prussian blue. White lines rub and trace the rhythms of the red fold, in a mimetic nod to the creases of the silk, wrinkled in time and moisture. Against layers of macabre spectacle, an iridescent pool gleams in a blue circle, pregnant with crystalline eggs of reflection.
These sheer objects impart a voyeuristic pleasure that comes with its equal dose of agony. The allure of something beyond enlists desperate callings answered only by the empty echo reverberated from the void of the wall, peeking through the peach and purple Untitled’s “inside.” In deceptive transparency, the painted veil tautly resists any query for interiority, poking fun at “perceptive depth” with a masked disclosure of its actual spatiality. Tactility is entangled with illusion, transparency with obscurity, culminating in subtleties that border on hallucination. All the while, the surface remains obstinately itself, conspiring with the depictive capacity of each stroke to a constant, active (dis)appearance.
And the wheel keeps spinning. This subversive slippage unfastens the fuseé: the engine of time seems to be more of a rumination on the inner workings of orders rather than its face value. The recurrent evocation of the engine dissolves the construct of “time” back to abstraction. Lines defy and corrode, asserting a disordered praxis, where stable knowledge is disillusioned with precarious perception—or is it the other way around?
Behind the gallery window facing Walker Street, Untitled (window) hangs, backside in front, staples exposed to the street. As light shines through the silk screen, the impenetrable surface breaks loose: the backside red bleeds through the discretion of the tensile painting, sustained in the split of unveil and retreat—recuperating a fugitive opacity. Cast as the shadow, inside.